A return to tribalism won’t save Labour

The centre left must embrace pluralism if it is to avoid permanent decline.

What is Labour's political purpose and strategy? The fault lines are now becoming clear: to go it alone, or build a wider political alliance?

Dan Hodges, in his usual robust and entertaining style, offers the case for the former through the creation of an alliance within Labour of the working and middle classes. Sound familiar? That's because it is. In effect, it's the big-tent strategy of one Mr T Blair, whom Dan so effectively opposed over ten years, for selling out the Labour cause.

But now it's the big tent as one more heave. And Dan and other leftist supporters of this strategy find themselves firmly anchored to other Labourists of the right such as John Reid. They find common cause in saying No to AV and No to anything that doesn't offer the hope of a majority Labour government that can usher in socialism for our people from above.

So why will this big tent be any different from Blair's, especially when Dan would rather the ringmaster was David Miliband? There is no reason to expect it will. To create such an alliance, all the emphasis will again be on the swing voters in the swing seats that Blair courted so effectively and in so doing stopped Labour being Labour.

Remember how in 1997 Labour won 140,000 new AB votes but lost four million Ds and Es. The big tent doesn't work even as an electoral strategy – let alone for social, economic and political transformation.

To be fair, it did once, in 1945, but that moment, along with the class and culture that spawned it, have long gone. The world has moved on, become more fragmented and complex. Centre-left politics will follow or wither still further.

Two things are interesting here. First, the initial New Labour victory in 1997 was based largely on a pluralist approach to politics – with a strong opening-out to Ashdown, Jenkins and the whole Cook/McLennan process. As Labour retreated to a one-party approach, so its vote collapsed and its radicalism shrank.

The second thing that is interesting is that the extreme tribalists like Dan Hodges and John Reid recognised the power of pluralism through their alliance with David Cameron and George Osborne to smash AV. So they practise pluralism to entrench tribalism. Weird, hey?

Holey misguided

These extreme tribalists are in a hole and want to keep Labour in it. They want the trench warfare of old adversarial politics, despite the fact that the poor are getting poorer and it's palpably not delivering for the left. It is based on "getting the right people elected", whoever these people are. The neoliberals in Labour ranks are bizarrely tolerated and much more social Liberals or egalitarian Greens despised.

Through their victory for keeping first-past-the-post (FPTP) they will try to lock the left into the politics of decline as the 1.6 per cent of the electorate that matters in the dwindling number of swing seats will deform our politics still further. A politics that gives all power to Murdoch and the Mail. As the old parties continue to disappoint under a system that focuses on so few, so voters look elsewhere or withdraw.

It's why FPTP will deliver more hung parliaments as the shared vote of the big two parties, but Labour in particular, drops. Yet such defiant tribalism creates the problem but denies the solution as the likes of Reid exercise their veto over voting reform or coalition-building with other parties, as they did so effectively after the general election last year. It is the politics of permanent opposition through self-marginalisation as they dream of a better 1945.

Labour did badly in the recent elections because it is still pursing the failed strategy and politics of New Labour. It is not offering an alternative political economy and it is refusing, because of the likes of Dan and John Reid, to operate in the world as it is, preferring the comfort of past glories. Ed Miliband – far too tentatively for my liking – is at least trying to push at the boundaries of a politics that will make Labour both social and democratic.

We are going to have to chart a course through the complexities of a world in which the politics of Caroline Lucas, Chris Huhne, Charlie Kennedy and others are less pro-market, more democratic and sustainable than John Reid, Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett. It requires the mobilisation narrative of a Good Society to coalesce and spark into life a progressive majority that can be created – and must be created.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder